How Steven Yeun Got His Millions & Oscar Nomination
Audiences obsessed over Steven Yeun as pizza deliveryman turned jacked zombie fighter in The Walking Dead – at one time the most watched television show in America. After his run on the show abruptly ended, Yeun found himself back to auditioning for bit parts. Several critically acclaimed films later, Yeun has earned himself a record-setting nomination: he is in running for the best actor Academy Award.
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Before the Big Break
Unless they are extremely lucky, scouted early, or came from an acting family, all actors know how difficult auditions can be when breaking into the business, and Steven Yeun is no exception. However, Yeun’s struggle was more than learning to bounce back from rejections. On Variety’s Award Circuit podcast, Yeun told the story of the very first audition he ever went out for. He performed Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue, and was asked to, “do that all again in an Asian accent.”
Yeun says that although he “phoned it in,” he still was offered the role, “because that’s how far and few between Asian actors were” at the time. However in the end, he turned down the job.
The Walking Dead
Before The Walking Dead, Yeun had only a few onscreen credits. He left the show with a massive fan base of his own.
“I think for me it was a massive blessing to get ‘Walking Dead’ because not only did I meet incredible people that taught me some incredible ways to navigate life — to be a professional, to be an actor, to take a job seriously,” Yeun told Variety.
While AMC doesn’t provide the same income to their cast members as a channel like CBS might, it still represents a regular gig. According to published reports, Andrew Lincoln received $90,000 per episode of the Walking Dead, with Norman Reedus reportedly receiving $80,000. Forbes used these numbers to estimate that costar Yeun was earning $60,000 per episode.
Despite the regular income and the boost to his career provided by The Walking Dead, Yeun wasn’t upset when his six season run on the show came to an end, because it gave him the opportunity to explore other roles: “I couldn’t be stuck servicing just a genial natured guy for the rest of my career. On the inside, I didn’t feel that way. On the inside, I can be angry, I can be vengeful. I can be all the other things, and I wanted to explore those things for myself.”
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Finding the Right Next Move
After Yeun left The Walking Dead, he didn’t just want to keep making the same kind of shows and playing the same kinds of characters over and over again. At first, that was a struggle. He had been on the most watched show in America for six years, and now he wanted to change his image – and he was still fighting against the same intrinsic biases he had faced in his very first audition.
“After I left, the things Hollywood would give back to me were more of the same. That’s obvious and happens to everybody, but I wanted to reject that. I wanted to see the other side, to understand who I was and what I wanted to say,” Yeun told Variety.
In 2016, comic Bobby Lee of MadTV ran into Steven Yeun – they were both auditioning for the same bit part. The role consisted of five lines in a “stoner movie.” Both Lee and actress Margaret Cho have stated that this event is typical of the Hollywood experience for Asian American actors: “To not think of this as a racist business — of course it is. It is. The truth is that we have to read,” Cho said. “We have to go in for things and it’s shocking, especially for somebody like him.”
Yeun’s hard work had given him the freedom to be particular about the roles, however. Even while going out for those bit parts, Yeun was being selective and planning his next move.
“I had the luxury of being on a TV show,” he said. “You get the cushion of having some income that you can save for a rainy day. That is still scary, but it makes you a little bit braver to pass on things. I realize how hellish it can be when I’m doing something that I don’t believe in, that is retreading territory.”
Science Fiction, Horror, and Thrillers Bring Critical Acclaim
Yeun had previously starred in the moody and ambitious science fiction film “I Origins” and the extremely stylized and graphic “Mayhem,” so his next career moves were right on brand. In 2017, he gained critical acclaim as K, a radical animal right’s activist, in Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja.” This role was written specifically for him. In 2018, he played Squeeze in the hit sci-fi comedy “Sorry to Bother You.” In Korea, Yeun starred in a hit thriller called, “Burning,” which devastates with serious twists.
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Minari and the Oscari Nomination
Minari tells the story of a Korean immigrant family, who travel to Arkansas in search of a new life. Yeun is not only the lead actor, but an executive producer. The film is also nominated for best picture.
Yeun is next set to appear in a film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s play “The Humans,” alongside Amy Schumer.
Although his recent success means that he will likely have his pick of Hollywood roles, Yeun is still being selective in figuring out what he wants to do next: “One thing that I’m realizing for myself is that I didn’t even know what I could do until it was presented to me. I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder.”
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Sources: NME, IndieWire, Forbes, CBR, Variety, Vulture, Insider
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